Paris has it all. (Part one…)

My first ever overseas trip was a school exchange trip – to live with a German family in the town of Arnsberg in what was, at the time, West Germany. I was fourteen years old and although I was initially homesick and found actual spoken German, rather than school boy German, difficult to understand – in the end I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and became well and truly bitten by the travel bug.

Since then I have travelled all over Europe, the UK, the Mediterranean area including a couple of north African countries, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, a few of the Pacific Islands, The USA, Canada and Mexico. I don’t have heaps of money so usually this means travelling on a tight budget – even backpacking and hitch hiking. Naturally I have my favourite places – places I would willingly return to time and time again. In general I try to avoid some of the busiest cities – countries capitals – BUT I must admit to having a love affair with the French capital Paris.

Getting an eyeful of the Eifel Tower

For me, Paris has everything. My passions are writing, photography, art, travel – not to mention good wine and rich strong coffee. Paris offers up all these and more. It’s been a magnet for writers and artists, connoisseurs of fine wines and foods, travellers, poets and of course, being the city of romance – lovers. 

All the best writers of old had lived and written in Paris – F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway to name but two. Of course France produced many famous writers of its own including Proust, Dumas, Flaubert, Sartre and we can’t miss out Voltaire. Paris was and is still a breeding ground for literature, philosophy, art, fashion and new ideas of all kinds

I have only visited Paris once, for a week, back in 2016, but I am smitten. We stayed in a small AirBnB apartment in the 17th arrondissment. It was basic, but clean and tidy and served our needs – and being in the 17th it was far enough off the tourist track for us to be away from most of the hustle and bustle. By this time, we had been on the road for about four months, so had become adept at living on a budget and sourcing and cooking our own food – although we did indulge ourselves in the cafes and patisseries. Who can resist French pastries? 
We had started our journey in early July of 2016, setting off from New Zealand with our backpacks and romantic ideas of travel. By the time we reached Berlin at the end of August, any ideas that travelling with backpacks was romantic had been kicked into touch and our packs had been swapped for suitcases with wheels – why carry when you can wheel? Paris was our last stop in mainland europe before catching the Eurostar train under the English channel to England. Despite having lived in England for my first almost 30 years of life I had avoided visiting France. Now because of my interest of writing and books, and having recently seen the Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris” I was quite keen to visit the “City of Lights”…..and track down some of the places that the movie was filmed.
 
We did a lot of the things on most tourists lists – went to see the Eifel Tower, Notre Dame, Arc de Triumph, Sacre Coeur, the museums and galleries, visited Printemps the big department store – partly to shop for a berret (the wife is so cliched) but also to visit the rooftop cafe which has some of the best views of Paris over the rooftops. The only downside was that on the day we went up to the roof it was overcast so Paris was not photographed at her best. However, what we enjoyed the most was just meandering through the streets and alleyways particularly around Montmartre – visiting the cemeteries and the final resting places of the famous (including writers – Proust and Wilde and composers Bizet and Chopin…and Jim Morrison of the Doors) and of course strolling the left bank of the Seine – perusing the wares of the book sellers lining the bank. Or simply enjoying a coffee in a cafe and watching the world rush by.

One of my highlights was visiting Shakespeare & Company book shop (twice). What an awesome book shop. A warren of rooms, packed bookshelves, books piled in every space, little sayings and quotes printed on the walls and stairs, and of course just breathing in the history of the place. The building used to be part of a 17th century monastery, although this particular shop was only opened in the 1950’s. Many famous writers, actors and artists have graced its rooms – Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, William Styron, Julio Cortázar, Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Lawrence Durrell, James Jones, and James Baldwin were some of the first. As an english language book shop in the heart of Paris, it became a haven for American and British ex-pats. Some have even slept there amongst the books, early in their careers (such as Ethan Hawke and Geoffrey Rush) or when down on their luck. From day one owner George Whitman encouraged writers and artists to seek shelter in his shop – a place to sleep and eat a meagre meal, in exchange for a couple of hours of work (and they also had to write a short bio and promise to read a book a day while living there). It’s been estimated that over 30,000 people, over the years the shop has been in business, have taken up the offer of food and shelter. It’s been owned by the same family throughout. Opened by George Whitman in 1951 (originally under the name of Le Mistral) and run either by him or under his watchful eye until he died in 2011 aged 98. His daughter Sylvia – named after Sylvia Beach, who founded the original Shakespeare & Company in 1919 on rue de l’Odeon – took over management of the shop in 2006. In 1964 on Shakespeare’s 4ooth birthday, and with the blessing of Sylvia Beach, the name of the shop was changed to what it is today – Shakespeare & Company. On my first visit, to the shop, I bought “My Brain on Fire” by Leonard Pitt – about his experiences living in Paris as a young man. Of his struggles to become a writer, living in a garret – naturally – and his mishaps in romance. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and read it before leaving Paris, it was so enthralling. I was lucky enough to get a signed copy.

On my second visit a few days later I bought the book about the shop – “Shakespeare & Company Paris” and subtitled “A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart”. It’s been compiled partly from George Whitman’s notes and letters and partly by the many many people who have lived and worked in the shop over the years. It has photos, notes, receipts, short biographies and notices throughout its pages – edited by Krista Halverson – it’s a delightful book to own and to read. It gives a real understanding of life in the shop – bedbugs and all – and provides a window into the eccentricity of an interesting, passionate and complex man who’s dream and life this shop became. It is available from the many on-line retailers but my advice would be to go to the shop yourself, pick up a copy and absorb some of that magical atmosphere.

The two books purchased from Shakespeare & Co.

Part two to follow soon…….

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William S Burroughs – beat writer, junkie, revolutionary, philosopher.

The heading above (almost) tells it all. Some would claim that Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg were the better known of the Beat Writers, but Burroughs was for me a more fascinating person. He outlived both Kerouac – who died young, only 47 years old, in 1969 and Ginsberg who died in April of 1997….Burrows passing on four months later in August of the same year.

Left to right – Hal Chase, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg & Burroughs in New York 1944

He was indeed all the things listed in the heading. A Beat Writer who was hooked on drugs, who had revolutionary ideas but also, as reflected in a number of quotes attributed to him, he was very philosophical in his outlook on life. In addition to all these things, he was also a killer. He shot his wife in 1951 while under the influence of drink and drugs. Someone, either himself or his wife Joan Vollmer (who incidentally was also a writer of the Beat Generation), suggested a game of “William Tell”. You know the story, William Tell shoots an arrow to knock an apple off his sons head? William S Burrows used a gun to shoot an apple off Joans head….but his aim was a little suspect even when sober, and Joan ended up stone cold dead. 

Burroughs loved to shoot guns…despite his experience of accidentally shooting his wife.

He admitted to the crime, received a 2 year suspended sentense for manslaughter and returned to his life as a trend setting writer. He wrote eighteen novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. In addition to this, five books have been written from interviews he gave. He also collaborated on recordings made by a number of musicians and performers. Yes he was a Beat Writer, but his work over the years crossed boundaries into many types of popular culture.

Patty Smith and Burroughs.

Singer/musician/poet Patty Smith is attributed to once naming him “Godfather of Punk”. Something Burroughs later denied – saying he had no link to the punk movement at all. But it stuck.

It’s not as though Burroughs was an uneducated, down on his luck junkie. He was a Harvard educated English student, later doing post-grad studies in anthropology and later still attended Med School in Vienna. He came from money….his family were wealthy. He was born with a silverspoon in his mouth….and later a silver spoon in his nose – experimenting with various drugs.

He applied to join the military in 1942, was turned down and this is when he started to experiment with drugs, meeting up with Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1943.

Although he had written a manuscript earlier with Kerouac called “And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks”, his first published novel was “Junkie” in 1953, subtitled “Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict”. Although it was a novel it was also semi autobiographical account of his life as a drug user and a drug dealer. His most famous (or is it infamous?) book however was published in 1959 – “Naked Lunch” was a very controversial book which was subject to a court case as it was claimed to be in violation of the U.S. Sodomy laws.

That was a trade mark of the Beat Writers – they were out to shock the public. (Ginsberg did it with his outragious poem “Howl”, which featured both hetrosexual and homosexual sex – again falling foul of the lawmakers. The court case for this was in 1957).

Burroughs was most famous as a leader of the Beat Writers. He was lauded by many famous people including Norman Mailer who said he was – “the only American Writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius”. Kerouac called him “the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift”. But, he dabbled in many areas of the Arts. He was a writer, film maker, performance artist and a painter/drawer. His drawings and paintings didn’t see the light of day until 1987 and he exhibited them for the next decade.

He was one of the first writers to publish a book of cut-up text. A manuscript would be written as normal and then pages cut in two lengthways. One of the two pieces could be moved up or down a few lines and taped together again creating a whole new manuscript. Other ways of producing cut-up text was to just move certain words or phrases into another part of the manuscript. Sometimes the result was nonsensical, sometimes it was meaningful – either way it was lauded as a breakthrough in writing. I guess it’s a little like the avant-garde art works of the time.

Later in life Burroughs kept cats for companionship and held them in high regard. Some of his quotes reflect this. “My relationship with my cats has saved me from a deadly, pervasive ignorance”.  And “A cat’s rage is beautiful, burning with pure cat flame, all its hair standing up and crackling blue sparks, eyes blazing an sputtering.”

On the system and government control – “Most of the trouble in this world has been caused by folks who can’t mind their own business, because they have no business of their own to mind”. And “How I hate those who are dedicated to producing conformity”. And finally  “Smash the control images. Smash the control machine”. And on gun control “After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from people who didn’t do it. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military”.

As for his quotes on drugs – he’s quite direct on how he views drugs and users/addicts. “Junk (drugs) is the ideal product….the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy.”  ” An addict never stops growing….stupider”. “I’m getting so Far Out one day I won’t come back at all”.

And a couple of quotes to finish off…..reflects the way that Burroughs and the “beats” lived their lives…..”Nothing is true…..everything is permitted”. “The only possible ethic is to do what one wants to do”.